LINGUIST List 3.538

Fri 26 Jun 1992

Disc: Innateness; Theories

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  1. Martti Arnold Nyman, Innateness, Onus probandi, Poverty of the stimulus
  2. , Re: 3.521 Innateness; Nationalism; Bibliographic Software

Message 1: Innateness, Onus probandi, Poverty of the stimulus

Date: Fri, 26 Jun 1992 15:35 EETInnateness, Onus probandi, Poverty of the stimulus
From: Martti Arnold Nyman <MANYMANFINUHA.bitnet>
Subject: Innateness, Onus probandi, Poverty of the stimulus

In 3.492, Paul Werth writes:

> In fact, the burden of proof is on those who want to claim innateness.
> The null
> hypothesis must surely be that the language faculty uses existing
> cognitive systems developed for perception, classification, recognition,
> storage, not to mention survival, gratification and so on.

This seems right to me. The innateness assumption a la Chomsky certainly
"multiplies entities" vis-a-vis the null hypothesis. However, the
innateness people have shrewdly shifted the onus probandi onto non-
nativists. This is how it goes:
 The adult's "steady state" involves a very rich and complex system
 of "knowledge", whereas the linguistic experience/stimulus/data(-base)
 to which the child is exposed is meagre and degenerate; the conclusion
 from this is that the child must -- this is an epistemic 'must' -- be
 biologically endowed with innate tools that do the requisite
 linguistic analysis.
This is the well-known argument from poverty of the stimulus. Because
innateness is offered as a 'How else?' explanation, the burden of proof
gets shifted on those who want to challenge Chomskyan innatism.

 David Pesetsky (3.436) is right in emphasizing that innateness is
a conclusion from linguistics, not a premise. I'd like to add by way
of a precisation that innateness is a conclusion reached by abductive
reasoning. That's why it's hypothetical. But combined with 'poverty
of the stimulus', innateness functions as a necessary premise in the
process where the mature steady state is deduced from linguistic
experience (which is supposed to be poor) and the initial state
(which avails itself of the innate Universal Grammar). So, in the
last analysis, the necessity of innateness hinges on the truth of
the poverty of the stimulus argument.

 It seems to me that there are two ways of playing the innateness
game. EITHER, you may dismiss innateness right away; this 'brute force'
solution may eventually be the right one, but it ignores the sociological
impact of the "Chomskyan turn"; OR, you may accept the onus shifted
upon us, and set about explaining how else, ie. without the innateness
assumption, to account for all the data that has been brought forward
by Chomsky and his associates as evidence for the inavailability,
to the child, of the richness and complexity of the adult's system.
In this task, man's innate ability to analogize is likely to play
a major role.

 While I'm at it, it behoves me to respond to Guido Vanden Wyngaerd's
(3.449) doubts about my non-innatist explanation of the wh-island
constraint. The sentence
 (1) Is the man who is tall in the room?
evidences for a hierarchical structure analysis (2a) instead of linear
precedence (2b):
 (2) a. Is [the man who is tall] __ in the room?
 b. *Is [the man who __ tall] is in the room?
My claim was that the 'hierarchical structure' generalization can be
reached/explained without the innateness assumption by means of analogy:
 Where is [X]? [X] is in Z. Is [X] in Z?
 ---------------------- = --------------------- = ---------------------
 Where is [X who is Y]? [X who is Y] is in Z. Is [X who is Y] in Z?

As a possible scaffold I conjectured the _where_ clause type. Because
my approach to syntax is presumably more concrete than Wyngaerd's,
I feel no necessity to derive the _where_ clause from an underlying
"[X] is where". In his reply, Wyngaerd writes:

> I fail to see how this case is different from the one not involving
> 'where'. Available evidence mainly consists of simple sentences (the ones
> over the line in Nyman's schema); the complex cases (those below the line)
> could be formed by fronting the first occurrence of 'is' or the first
> occurrence following the subject (eg '*Where is [X who __ Y] is?'). The
> second possibility does not occur, however. Nyman suggests analogy to
> explain this: but how does the child know what (s)he has to form an analogy
> with?

The problem seems to be whether the linguistic stimulus to which the child
is exposed is rich enough for her/him to decide on the hierarchical
structure analysis on the basis of analogy. I think it is, and
overwhelmingly so; for example,
 [X] goes to Z [X] is in Z
 ---------------------- = --------------------- = ... etc.
 [X who is Y] goes to Z [X who is Y] is in Z

 The poverty of the stimulus argument is tied up with the syntactic
mechanism of generative grammar in an intriguing way. It is true that
"motherese" can't be used to refute innateness. On the contrary, though
it isn't degenerate, motherese exemplifies precisely the kind of
impoverished data which the innateness people think fails to conduce to
the attainability of the principles of (GB type) generative grammar.

Martti Nyman
University of Helsinki, Dept. of General Linguistics, Helsinki (Finland)
manymanfinuh or
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Message 2: Re: 3.521 Innateness; Nationalism; Bibliographic Software

Date: Wed, 24 Jun 1992 10:46 PDTRe: 3.521 Innateness; Nationalism; Bibliographic Software
From: <>
Subject: Re: 3.521 Innateness; Nationalism; Bibliographic Software

re: JA Given's posting on why discredited theories don't die

This is not unique to linguistics, but is part of the general history of

science. In _The Body in Question_, Jonathan Miller discusses
how the metaphor of the heart as a furnace (rather than as a pump, the
metaphor we use now), first developed by the Greek physiologist Galen, was so

much a part of the scientific lore that when an empirical study in the 16th

century showed that a key part of the theory (the claim that blood moved

directly across heart from right to left through the septum) could not be
true, the results of the experiment were discredited rather than the
theory. Miller goes on to state

"Philosophers of science sometimes imply that scientific thought is a simple
 alternation between conjecture and refutation, and that contradictory

 evidence automatically discredits an otherwise plausible hypothesis. This

 history of cardiac physiology shows that this is an over-simplification,
 because it overlooks the criteria which are used to decide what will count
 as a contradictory finding: if a theory has found favor with a scientific
 community, it is the anomalous finding rather than the theory itself which
 is discredited . . . The history of science is full of such examples. If a
 theory is persuasive enough . . . scientists will accomodate inconsistent or
 anomalous findings by decorating the accepted theory with hastily improvised
 modifications. Even when the theory has become and intellectual slum,
 perilously propped and patched, the community will not abandon the condemned
 premises until alternative accommodation has been developed."
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